The Festival of Untruth: When the film industry and its hangers-on descend upon Cannes, truth is the first casualty. The business is built on promises never kept, scripts never read, phone calls never returned. Yet the festival remains oddly compelling

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The Independent Culture
IN THE Majestic Hotel in Cannes, one of the very hottest of young hot American producers walks to his table. It takes some time, as there are many people who want to shake Lawrence Bender's hand and kiss, among other things, his cheek. Bender produced Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and Boaz Yakin's Fresh. The last two are both at Cannes. The last but one is about to win the Palme d'Or, the hottest Cannes prize, the prize Krzysztof Kieslowski was expected to win but did not. Bender sits down - long hair, lean body, mid-thirties. Heads turn. In the perfect sunlight, waiters navigate around two women baring their breasts on behalf of The Vampire Conspiracy, an 'erotic sci-fi thriller'. Over a pounds 5 glass of dense orange juice, Lawrence Bender says: 'I feel very comfortable in the middle of a lot of people. Like, Cannes, I feel comfortable here.' He smiles, and puts effort into a body language of attention and interest - eye contact, head leaning forward. Asked about his otherworldly hotness, he says softly: 'Yes, I do have some heat.'

A little later in the Carlton, the other very expensive hotel in Cannes, a man chaperoning his vivid baby-blue jacket down a corridor passes another man.

'Hi]'

Slight pause; then, with enthusiasm: 'Hi]'

Pause. 'How's it going?'

Pause. 'You know, it's OK . . .'

Pause. 'I, yeah . . .'

They are speaking more and more slowly. Energy is draining out of the exchange, because - it has become clear - neither man knows the other. Neither man is even certain he has ever met the other. And it suddenly becomes obvious to both that life would be a lot simpler if neither said anything more, not even goodbye. They simply stop, mid-sentence, and move apart, walking in opposite directions down the corridor.

The Carlton and the Majestic: these are the two hotels where the fancy action happens. Between them is a street called the Croisette, the main drag. Many thousands of journalists and tourists come to the Croisette, and their demand for spectacle so outstrips the available attractions that even the most irritatingly behatted mime artist is guaranteed a crowd.

But so, too, is nothing at all. Walking down the Croisette during the film festival is like arriving at a series of places where there have just been small motor accidents. There are many little crowds. Every few paces the crush of people thickens and everyone seems to be looking with some purpose in a single direction. So you stop and look, and there is nothing at all to see, and you ask what is going on, and people shrug, and smile, and they explain that they just stopped because there was a crowd. And they are quick to point out that even if there were famous people to see, they wouldn't particularly give a damn, because Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve are certainly no better than anyone else, whatever they may think, and the job of a pharmacist, to take an example, is in many ways finer than the job of an actor . . . And before you have had time to move on, someone is asking you what you are looking at, and while you are explaining yourself, you realise that the whole thing could go on for ever - the Crowd That Never Dispersed.

AT CANNES each spring they have a competition between 23 films, one of which wins the Palme d'Or. Around this simple event there has grown a great palaver - a 12-day photocall, a porn marketplace, a Hollywood party, other prize-givings. Hotness is tested in dinner suits, on yachts. A billion dollars' worth of trade is done in scores of finished, half-finished, and barely imagined films. You may meet Martin Sheen, sitting with great calm in the sun, promoting a film still in production on a Croatian subject ('Career? My children have a career. I have a life'), and you can almost meet the director John Waters, promoting Serial Mom; he and I are sitting in the same hotel, possibly on the same floor of the same hotel, and if one of us shouted loudly . . . But this is the film industry, and the interview will be conducted on the telephone: 'Hey,' he says, 'I'll just turn the TV down . . .'

In Cannes, even small players briefly live film versions of film lives. They water-ski and dance clumsily. They gather world news via the inside pages of film-trade magazines: 'Brit Smith Dead'. They have balcony sex and take drugs, eat gritty canapes at beach parties, drive rented sports cars, and offer to call each other back a bit later.

'I come here,' says one Italian producer, 'I tell lies, I go away.' Cannes is a great annual Festival of Untruth. In every industry there are investors who must be charmed with gorgeously phrased promises of perks and high returns. In all commerce, you must screw the competition, you must promote with gusto, you must describe the world as you trust it will look shortly, rather than as it is now (because the cheque, after all, will eventually be in the

post). But it is hard to think of an industry that competes with the film industry for thoroughness of mendacity. In order to make a film, you must lie at the beginning, and in the middle, and at the end. You must lie from 'Keanu's on board' onwards.

One afternoon in Cannes, a young - hot - film director talks pleasantly of the greatest lie he has yet told in his brief career. Not the one he told investors on golf courses in California ('See this photo? Cute? She's going to be in the movie - you get to meet her at the wrap party . . .'), nor what he said to get cheap film stock and cheap permits ('We're doing this, like, student film . . .'), nor the lies he is telling me about distribution deals about to be struck in the Majestic and the Carlton ('You know, we're in negotiations . . .'), nor the lies about casting and delivery dates and the cost of catering. Rather, the greatest lie yet was probably the one he told a friend at film school: they were both students, working on their graduation films, 'and Hollywood producers are always looking for the hottest student with the hottest student film. So how are you going to be that one? How are you going to be head and shoulders above the next guy? If there's a way you can give somebody bad advice, you do it.' So he gave bad advice. When his friend's film got to its hottest moment, its one perfectly achieved scene, this now-hot American director said to his fellow-student: 'This scene, it just doesn't work in your film. It doesn't work.' And the friend cut the scene.

Shekar Kapur is the director of Bandit Queen, a deserving 'buzz' film at this year's festival. He says: 'You lie all the time. My first film, I didn't make the film that I told the financier I was going to make. Halfway through my pitch, he started yawning, so I just changed it. I described one film and made another. One was a total action film, and the other was just a small drama about a boy in a situation in a family he couldn't handle.'

Later, in the large windowless basement known as The Bunker, where nasty pointless films are bought and sold, Michele Boudon is manning the stall of the United Movie Corporation, producers and distributors of hard-core pornography. There are many images from her films around her, on the walls and on her desk. She says: 'Without lies, there's no film industry. I lie all the time. I lie about liking these films. But the biggest liars are the men who say they can perform in front of the camera and then they don't perform.' She laughs. 'He's a superman at home, but in front of camera he is not a superman.'

One night on the Carlton's bit of beach, there is a party thrown by MTV. The people not invited are only a few feet away from those who are. They look down mockingly - not enviously - on 2,000 journalists and low-grade executives. There are no stars, except Chris Isaak, who sings 'Blue Hotel' for us. A girl who has taken too much cocaine drinks glass after glass of champagne and tosses the glasses from a jetty into the sea, like a Cossack. Asked if he has seen any films while in Cannes, a young Englishman says no, he hasn't: 'As far as I'm concerned, they're 90 minutes of dead time.'

And another young Englishman in evening dress, a 'producer' whose business card has a suspiciously suburban address, says: 'I lied to five different people to get an invitation to this.' There is a touch of pride in his voice . . .

Towards the end of the week, the end of the booze and press conferences and Bosnian coming-of-age movies and lying PR people and sudden low thunderstorms, I meet Whit Stillman, who made Metropolitan, and wrote, directed and produced Barcelona, which he says was an especially exhausting thing: 'the polite lies, the white lies. When you're talking about your budget, it depends who's asking.'

He looks tired. 'I sometimes wish,' he says, 'I was doing something simpler.'

Maybe poetry?

'Yes. No one reads you, but at least no one rewrites you.'

THERE is a short story by Martin Amis called Career Move, in which the relative cultural positions of poets and screenwriters are reversed. In this world, poets make a lot of money, have agents, fly to LA (' 'The only thing we have a problem on Sonnet with, Luke, so far as I can see anyway, and I know Jeff agrees with me on this - right Jeff? - and so does Jim, incidentally, Luke,' said Joe, 'is the form.' '); screenwriters meet in Camden bookshops, submit their work to small-circulation magazines and, after a very long wait, get a polite note thanking them for Offensive from Quasar 13 and 'a cheque for pounds 12.50 which bounced'.

In a bar of limited bohemianism, I have lunch with two Cannes poets, one of whom can reasonably be described as the hottest poet in this exceptionally poet-unfriendly environment. Both are poor; one is happy, one not.

Yvan Tetelbon is the hot poet, and the optimist; he says that the phrase 'Je t'aime' is the finest poem of all. He is small and dark in quite a filmy way. Jeremy Berenger is skinny and troubled, a little younger. From a distance, he looks extraordinarily chic - button-down shirt, suit, swept-back hair. Close up, he is revealed to be as frayed and unwashed as any 19th-century fictional consumptive. 'It's a disguise. They think I have some money and let me stay longer in the cafes.'

Over lunch, Yvan Tetelbon draws complicated diagrams on small pieces of paper to show his complex but essentially cheery relationship with the outside world (little arrows represent dangerous influences failing to pierce the 'No man's land' around his consciousness, and so on). 'I'll sit outside a cafe - I'm in a state of writing. Afterwards, I write, or I don't write, it doesn't matter . . .'

Berenger lives in the centre of Cannes in a state of some dismay. Tetelbon lives just outside, with his second wife. He stays close to this town of 'insincerity and superficiality' in order to see his 20-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage. He used to be a singer-songwriter in Paris, but his first wife made them move down here, and then she immediately told him she did not love him. Now he writes long, autobiographical poems - which are published - and struggles to survive in a place with no university, no poetry society, little culture at all.

Film-festival participants pass our table wearing their laminated accreditations with sad pride. Old ladies take their dogs for a carry. 'Often,' says Berenger, 'I don't eat.' Tetelbon says: 'I go to the bank to take out just 100 francs (about pounds 12.50) and they look at me in this terrible way . . .' In the bar nearest his home, they harass him when he lingers - as poets must - over a single coffee.

I describe the Martin Amis satire. 'No]' shouts Tetelbon. 'I don't want this money. It is not good for me. On the Croisette, I feel sorry for them. I think, poor man, poor woman. A film itself may be good: the image, the music, the light. But everything around it . . .'

His friend Berenger, the pessimist, the depressive, is looking less sure. Unlike Yvan, he has no phone, no car. And he cannot reject the Amis reversal so quickly.

'When you have no money,' he says, 'you are alone.'

'I have no money,' says Yvan, 'and I am not alone.' Then he says: 'You see, I am not waiting for anything. My future is in myself.'

But his friend Berenger is waiting for something. Like the unshaven student directors from the Cannes camp-sites who interrupt Lawrence Bender's lunches with a tap on the shoulder, like the bikini girls praying to pull themselves up out of porn, like the men on the beachside payphones pitching stories to people who don't listen, like all these trying to make some kind of mark in an industry where it is possible to make no mark at all in a lifetime - the poet Jeremy Berenger dreams of the fabulous reversal of fortune that film can supply with so much greater ease than free verse.

With awful inevitability, Jeremy produces a piece of paper from the mock-executive briefcase that is part of his disguise. A little, ah, project. Something he has been working on. It is called Destiny. It is a synopsis of a screenplay.

'You are mad,' Yvan tells his friend.-

(Photographs omitted)

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